Twenty five years ago today, Clarissa Explains It All hit the airwaves and changed the game for good.
It was 1991, and television for kids was, well, not ideal. It was even worse if you were a girl longing for a certain type of role model in entertainment. Before Clarissa Darling started talking to us from her suburban Ohio bedroom, discerning young viewers didn't have many idols. There was the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but the Banks sisters didn't exactly have their values intact—unless you count being able to spot a designer purse from miles away as values. And there was Kelly Kapowski, Saved By the Bell's head cheerleader, most popular girl in school, and an onscreen how-to guide for feeling bad about yourself.
The heroine in Clarissa Explains It All could most aptly be described as the anti-Kelly Kapowski. She was also the very first female lead of a television show in Nickelodeon's history.
At the time of the sitcom's creation, the network was in need not only of shows for girls (and really for girls), but of shows that simply were on the kid's side and not simply to serve the toy companies and advertisers. Enter Mitchell Kriegman, a former Saturday Night Live writer with a development deal at Nickelodeon and a goal of creating something inspiring (and not watered-down) for girls.
"The world at a time was a G.I. Joe versus Barbie world," Kriegman, the series' creator, told E! News. "Shows were either for boys or for girls. I thought Nickelodeon needed a spokesperson who was representative of what a kid really was, and I wanted to create a show that girls would be empowered by, but boys would like too."
Of course, since it was 1990 and there were no shows like Clarissa Explains It All anywhere on television, it was a bit of a foreign concept to network executives. Although everyone loved Clarissa—and Melissa Joan Hart's portrayal of her, especially—there were a few reactions that proved just how gender biased entertainment was at that time.
"They really thought Clarissa was rude to her parents and too sarcastic," said Kriegman. "Every time I write a girl somebody always says that, even though it's not any more true than it is for boys. They also thought she wouldn't ever fight a boy [like in the bullying episode], but I said that's just not true. Girls will stand up to boys; they're not afraid of them."
New as the series was, it caught on like wildfire. Girls everywhere (including, yes, this writer) so quickly identified with and became attached to the sassy and hilarious Clarissa. For the first time she wasn't overly stereotypical or a trope—you couldn't fit her into the box of "tomboy" or "girly girl" that pretty much every other young female character fit into. She loved science experiments and video games. She had a pet alligator named Elvis. She had a best friend who was a boy that she didn't have a crush on. She wasn't obsessed with makeup, but she also (gasp!) still cared what she looked like. On television it made her an anomaly, but in the viewers' reality it made her just like them.
All of that was no accident; it was done by Kriegman's design.
"Gerri [Laybourne, a former Nickelodeon executive] gave me all the advertising data for the network, so I set out to design someone who was emblematic of the audience," he told E!. "Who was the audience. I created a forward-looking girl who was assertive and smart and could like boys without being mushy."
Easier said than done? Possibly. To make sure this all played out in the right way onscreen, the team did several things. First was casting Hart; in order to make Clarissa's biting commentary pleasant, they needed her light. "The formula is to take a really nice girl and make her Clarissa-like...if I had taken the really edgy girls in high school [who inspired the character] it would have been too much," said Kriegman. The second was to make sure everyone who worked on the show, from the writers to the costume designer, understood exactly what it was that made Clarissa special. That came in the form of a bible for the show, that included everything from the way she talked to what she did and wore.
And as the show's fans will say, what she wore was sometimes the most important part. If you've ever scrolled through '90s TV show reruns, you know that most young girls rocked either a (shudder) frills-and-pink-and-lace combo or were (double shudder) confined to the oversized jeans and sweatshirts jail that was the late 20th century tomboy wardrobe. But in the show's theme song scenes alone, she goes from a ballerina tutu to a rocker outfit to a basketball uniform. In other words, s--t real girls wore. Those of us sitting at home watching in our Doc Marten boots and Limited Too tops (and let's be honest, we were probably applying Lip Smackers at the same time) had finally found someone we could relate to.
The formula didn't just resonate with viewers, it kicked off a straight-up movement in '90s television. After Clarissa Explains It All broke onto the scene, more and more spunky and multi-dimensional young girls followed, with a few even getting their own spot as a series lead. In the summer and fall of 1994 (shortly before Clarissa would air its last episode), The Secret World of Alex Mack and My So-Called Life premiered. They weren't Clarissa copycats (Alex Mack could morph into a blob of goo, after all), but they were shows that might not have made it onscreen if someone else hadn't broken the mold. It's almost like television knew we were about to lose our protagonist—the show basically ended because Clarissa became too old for Nickelodeon—and gifted us more characters we could connect to.
Although Kriegman is hesitant to credit too much to Clarissa ("I don't take credit for everybody's work; people come up with their own versions of things"), he does believe that a shift happened in entertainment. "It helped develop a zeitgeist," he mused. "People started getting with the times more, being open to things like self-conscious characters or sarcasm. Or even breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience."
He also pointed out that he believes the positive shift in the '90s kicked off by Clarissa Explains It All has been on a bit of a backslide as of late. The Hannah Montanas of the world aren't exactly providing great (or realistic) role models for girls to connect to. "It was a step back when Disney came out with girls who wanted to be a star and were boy crazy," he explained to E! News. "Clarissa would have never wanted to be a star. If she had wanted to be a musician she would have wanted to be a great musician, but it wasn't about fame. She was the star in her own life."
And he has a major point. Clarissa was beloved by her viewers, and mourned once she went off the air. If there's anyone out there constantly referencing the cancellation of Hannah Montana as a great cultural loss, we haven't met them. There's a reason why people are so much more nostalgic about Clarissa and Alex Mack and My So-Called Life, even though their TV time was so short-lived, than the more overtly popular Disney shows—they inspired real aspirations, not eye makeup trends or hair colors.
"I've heard so many girls say they got empowered to be a gamer or a computer techie based on the fact that Clarissa did that," Kriegman said enthusiastically. "And I've heard tons of stuff about the show's lack of gender bias. It's one of the most satisfying experiences of my life."